There's no such thing as a rhetorical question!

I hate rhetorical questions. Like a hole in the path they're just waiting for you to go wrong and put your foot in it.

We're meant to know when someone is asking a rhetorical question. We're meant to understand that people ask questions which don't always need an answer. But why ask a question if you don't want an answer?

Rhetorical questions all hinge on the listener realising no answer is necessary. To understand that you need an amount of common knowledge and the ability to stop yourself opening your mouth and answering the question before the rest of your brain catches up.

Like most aspies, I love answering questions - knowing the answers to things is the part of a conversation I can do. So it's second nature to wait for the chance to take part. If someone says something obvious, how am I meant to know, in that split-second of reaction, that they aren't really asking a question? How am I meant to realise in time that they don't need my help?

I'm used to being the person who asks obvious questions - obvious to everyone but me - so when someone else does the same, I don't mind answering. But when it turns out they didn't expect an answer you're back to seeing the face change, the pause as they process you jumped in where you weren't wanted and the shift as they try to claw back the conversation to the direction they wanted it to go.

Anyway, why is any question deemed rhetorical? In this world of almost infinite possibilities, there is every chance that the obvious thing you are asking about might not happen or might have a different answer. And even if the answer is wholly obvious, I'm still going to answer it, if only because my brain spotted the question mark before my social graces detected the self-satisfied-smirk of the rhetorical question.

Is the sky blue? I'm going to answer yes, with the proviso that it is blue to us, but perhaps not blue to the whole world and not blue from every direction because the sky is a complex amalgam of stuff what stops the universe falling in on us.

Is the Pope a Catholic? Well...I'm assuming so, seeing as it is one of the job requirements but as I've had many jobs where I stretched my qualifications and just thought I could wing it, I won't absolutely state my reputation on all popes being Catholic because you never know what might happen on the spur of the moment.

And if you ask me, Am I right? not expecting an answer, then you have only yourself to blame. I will give your question serious thought and then explain my opinion in as much detail as I can before you unexpectedly have to leave.

So, as they say, be careful what you ask for. You may think you are asking a non-question that doesn't need an answer, but there is always someone somewhere who can prove you wrong.


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Aspie Empathy and the Cabbage Effect

I know people get upset and it is sometimes necessary to be there while they're upset, rather than hide in the next room - especially if you are the reason they are upset. But then we come down to the usual rigmarole of understanding the upset (which is fine, I understand you are upset) as opposed to knowing how they feel (how on earth do you feel?).

I have a vague idea of how I would feel if I was upset like you are, I just don't understand how you feel in this situation. How you feel and how I feel are different things and my own perceptions cannot be trusted.

So many times I've been caught off-guard by people reacting oddly to things which have no effect on me. What are they doing now? What are they talking about? Hadn't we finished with that? It didn't bother me, why did it bother them?

I know what it's like from the other end, with others not understanding why I react as I do, so you would think this might make me more sympathetic when the roles are reversed? In theory, yes: I realise you can be worried when I'm in blythe spirits. In practice though?

Well, in practice it can be very hard to link up the knowledge that you are upset and the understanding that you are upset when I am fine, with the ability to connect with your feelings in a way that helps me to see how you are feeling.

Let's call it the Cabbage Effect: I know cabbage is very nutritious (the knowledge), I know that I don't like cabbage and you do (the understanding) but I have absolutely no idea how anyone in their right mind could really enjoy cabbage (the ability to have a deeper understanding).

Cabbage is green and full of good stuff which helps our bodies thrive yet I would rather languish on my bed, too weak to turn on the computer than put any cabbage in my mouth. Let me crawl to the cabinet and pop vitamins, let me eat something, anything else, let me do whatever it takes not to eat cabbage ever again as long as I live.

Even watching someone enjoying cabbage is not enough to convince me on this emotional level, leaving me with a logical knowledge of what another person thinks and feels without an emotional belief that it's possible to feel that way. I tend to think they have been brainwashed from an early age and don't know any better.

In terms of a deeper understanding of other people's feelings, this cabbage effect is key: I see them react, I hear their words, I watch their tears or anguish and I know they are saying what I need to hear. But instead I feel that if they were to react differently, as I would react, then we could talk.

There is a mismatch between realising how people feel and behave and understanding why their feelings and behaviour are different from mine.

The cold aspie, the heartless aspie, the unfeeling, non-empathetic aspie, the one who can watch you cry from behind the door frame and be gone the next time you look up. I am this person.

From my end, I have to train myself to trust others to behave as they must and treat them with kindness even if I have no idea what they are going on about. But from your point of view, friends, family and best beloveds, you must also know that your aspie is trying to be as empathetic as they can bear.

Just because they look at you so wary and pat your hand from so far away doesn't mean they don't care. A hand reaching out to pat you as if you might bite is still a hand reaching out. It might be tentative but it still counts.


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I'm not clumsy, I just forget where my feet have gone.

I was never going to make a tightrope walker, I've been tripping over invisible toads for as long as I can remember. With that peculiarly elegant way of lifting one foot then trying to lift the other before the first has come down, pegging a nose at physics as they somehow meet in the middle and over we go.

I have become very adept at not falling all the way down though. If I could combine this ability with proper elegance and a centre of gravity, then I might have been a small, fat ballet dancer, or at least been able to ride a bike.

I can fall off the pavement, twist as I go and land on one foot with the other raised behind and up, one hand out to hit the road and the other one gripping my phone so at least one of us will make it. Or trip up stairs and find a way to lunge slowly towards the next step so that I have just enough time to stop before I smash my teeth, my nose poised to nudge the stair.

When I was very small, I liked to climb and was discovered in the upstairs window, sitting with my legs swinging out into the air, one hand holding the window (relaxed though, as if I was sailing down the river on a slow boat) and the other hand waving at the growing crowd below. I had no sense of danger then; because I was happy, I was also safe. I had to be distracted until my uncle could sneak up behind and grab me (thanks, Uncle Tom).

Now that I'm old enough to know what it could mean to fall up or down stairs, to fall into the road, to be eaten by the escalator (one of these days it will get me, I know it), I try to be careful. I travel like a little old lady sometimes, one foot, then the other, trying to remind myself that one foot should always be on the ground and that it's a good idea to know where the other is going next.

I have a little student who is also clumsy and a bit delicate. We often laugh at ourselves, she disappearing off under her chair when she only wanted to pick up a pen and me trying not to fall off after her as I help her up. She likes me to high five her when she gets something right but she has to chase my hand. When she raises her little hand and comes towards mine, I discover I am dodging her - not a very kind reaction to a small girl who wants to celebrate.

Finally, she told me off and I realised what I was doing. I explained to her that I was such a bad aim that every time she wanted me to high five her back, I was afraid of missing her hand and smacking her in the head. She thought this was hilarious. So we've worked out a system where I hold my hand still and straight and accept her high five without moving. She knows I'm part of it, she knows why I don't move and I don't have to fish her out from under the table after.

As for the rest, it's just best to be aware of what you might do or not do or do in the wrong order. If your feet are against you, try not to stare at them all day as you might walk into people. If you need to hold important handrails, do not grab them and hold on as if your very life depended on it - it's weird and you have to remember to let go at the end before the escalator belt takes its chance.

If you fall off pavements into the road, then feel free to little-old-lady-walk until you are at the other side. There is no point trying to act like a person who doesn't fall off pavements in the hope that it will come true.

When people make fun of you for tripping, or, more likely, tease you for not doing something you know will end in tripping, let them. If their feet always behave, they won't have any idea what it can be like expecting ground and finding fresh air instead.

And lastly, if you see an open window, do not sit in it. My Uncle Tom is a lot older now and not very good at sneaking.


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Sometimes you just need to choose balloons

We can all go through life doing the right thing, knowing the exactly correct way to live and following it. Like little goats staggering our way along the thickest of thickets, we kick and gnaw and jump, just so we can go on that high, craggy path that leads to the right place.

Jump off it and you fail, run down the mountain by the meadow path and you fail; stop off at Old Man Blue's house for oatcake and tea and you fail. If the norm is to push and push through the most painful of trials, to take a smoother path is seen as failure.

When did everyone decide we were going up that damn mountain? Who put the map on the table at the other end and pointed to the one place we all had to reach? Was it someone who should have known better? Or did they really think it was best to shove every last one of us to the start of the path then close the gate behind us?

I'd rather not. I don't mind the easy path, if it means stopping on the way down or up and lying in the grass while clouds drift overhead. In the deep mist when I should be following voices to find my way, I would rather hunker down by the lion-shaped crag and wait for the sun to come out. Yes, I might not reach the top with the rest of you but who cares? You may care, I do not.

At the top you can go back-clapping and high-fiving and know you are kings of the universe. It doesn't matter. That little dot of colour bobbing below will be me, far from it all, following my own path with the heady, winsome, abstract echo of laughter of the balloon.

It jogs in the wind when I walk slowly and it lags behind it I forget to hold it high. When I think myself alone, it taps me on the back and I make sure it stays close and safe. When other people are struggling, I let them see me having this moment of fun. It's better to show them the bright, dancing ball of childlike delight than to say, 'Are you sure you want to carry on as you are?'

Moments later and life can take us anywhere. Let go of the string and the balloon goes without you, sailing into the sky, a glance of rainbow in the corner of your eye. That too is a joy, to see it free, as if this simple flight is what it was meant to be after all, instead of what you expected.

Somewhere, a path waits and it doesn't need to be checked at every step or lit by a thousand torches. If you find the right one, you barely need to look down and can keep your eye on where you are going, or hesitate while you set down and wait to think.

Take joy with you, forget the need to force your way through and choose balloons when others would choose stout walking boots and maps of every path to the summit. There is cake on this little bend in the mountain and a balloon floating free in the bright, spring blue of the sky. Take this way for a while and see where it leads.


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